I came into this world as an evangelical pastor’s kid and then became an atheist after almost 4 years of bible college. It is a long story, but one that I hope gives some insight into the inner workings of Evangelicalism.
I was born in Wisconsin to two loving parents who had only the best intentions for my life. Among other side occupations such as church directory photography, my father is a pastor and my mother a worship leader. As Bible-believing Evangelicals, they worry about hellfire, where those who do not believe in the right things are punished infinitely for finite crimes and have no opportunity for repentance after death. They wanted to save me from such a fate and perceived the best way to do this would be to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). This training occurred by homeschooling me and keeping me apart from non-Christians as a young person and by giving me mostly Christian books to read and Christian music to listen to.
From the moment I was born I was surrounded with bibles, religious conversation, prayers, worship songs, morning devotions, bible-based storybooks, movies, and church services. I accepted Jesus as lord when I was 3 or 4 at the prompting of my mother, who asked me if I wanted to accept Jesus to live in my heart at bedtime one night. I accepted my mother’s explanation of the universe without question. How could I with no other alternative available? What choice did I have at this young moment in my development where children are programmed to trust their parents absolutely? My parents could have just as easily inundated me with the idea that Kim Jong-il was the Supreme Leader and never wrong.
I had mixed feelings about Christianity at first. On the one hand, I enjoyed socializing with other children and getting praise for memorizing Bible verses in children’s church services (I was pretty good at it!), but on the other hand I found worship and sermons in real adult church services mostly boring. Not every church had separate children’s services, and often in adult services I could think of little else than how excited I was to get home and get back on my Super Nintendo to enjoy the rest of my Sunday, which was far more interesting than the stories about Moses or Paul that I could recite by heart.
I was homeschooled for almost my entire K-12 education. My parents believed that this would prevent me from being corrupted by belief in evolution and getting “addicted” to drugs, smoking, alcohol, sex, the occult, and associated peer pressures. My mom taught most of my classes, but my dad usually taught bible and gym. I learned to read very well since I had so much time to devote to it, but my science, writing, and math education was dismal and self-taught after middle school.
As a young child, I sometimes had terrifying fears of hellfire or being left behind in the rapture, but those were usually alleviated by immediately rededicating my life to God and for the most part I was pretty secure in my Christian faith. I learned a lot about the bible and theology because I was reinforced positively for it, but I wasn’t terribly excited about it.
This changed when I was 12, where two important things happened. First, my mom found porn links in the family computer’s internet history and discovered my growing interest in female anatomy. She called me into the computer room and started bawling, dumbfounded that I could do such a wrong and vile thing. In her eyes I was a poster child of devotion to God. The shame I felt was crippling. My stomach reeled. I knew my family would not approve of this curiosity because my eyes were always covered or I was sent out of the room for any intimate scenes in movies. Therefore, I hid my curiosity in the female body and was conditioned to feel guilt and shame at this interest.
When I was caught with porn, my dad took me out to get a smoothie for a man-to-man talk on sex and lust and how it was so sinful. He reminded me how imperative it was to not “lust after a woman with my eyes” and wait for sex until marriage. I felt horrifically guilty and was grounded and limited in my internet access and trust. As an aside, I didn’t even discover masturbation until 4 years later when I was 16 because I had no sexual education courses in my homeschool curriculum. I was completely unaware of my bodily functions and even how babies were made. This event started a cycle of repression, guilt, shame, and self-hatred for having sexual desires and no outlet.
The second major event that shifted me towards more religious zeal was when we moved from Wisconsin to Kansas City, MO. I think my parents wanted a better religious atmosphere for us and my “fall” into porn may have helped prompt our move because we moved several months after that event. When I reached Kansas City I became part of a youth group with passionate charismatic leaders teaching a new brand of Christianity. This was at a quasi-cult evangelical institution called the International House of Prayer (IHOP hereafter), which believes a multitude of strange things that diverge significantly from mainstream Christianity, while holding onto many of the core tenets of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Even by evangelical standards they have odd beliefs about the end of the world and about their intimate relationship with Jesus. If you have ever seen "Jesus Camp" or "God Loves Uganda", this is the community and leaders mentioned in those documentaries.
At 13 years old, I responded to Lou Engle’s One Thing conference altar call in December 2001. The altar call asked for young people to dedicate their lives to be messengers of the gospel in the last, dying days of our planet before Jesus returns to destroy all evil people on the planet. He also called for youth to remove anything in life that would hinder that, including video games, movies, friends, or anything that hinders biblical devotion. I threw out my video games (dozens of great classic pc games & my Nintendo 64 with its games) and vowed to dedicate my entire life over to Christian ministry. I threw all my effort into graduating high school early so that I could do this sooner, because I felt such urgency for it. During these last years of high school I was very involved in IHOP before and after school hours, where I was a sound engineer for several worship teams, including some that had prayer meetings regularly from 6-8am in the morning. I also prayed on the microphone at all our youth events and took detailed notes during all the sermons at IHOP.
I studied my barebones high school curriculum rigorously, even in the summer, and wound up getting a high school diploma from my parents when I was 16 so I could enter the Forerunner School of Ministry (now IHOP University) and major in “Apostolic Preaching.” It was called this because IHOP genuinely believes that these preachers will have supernatural power to heal the sick, raise dead people, be unharmed by snake venom (though they don’t test it willfully), and attract open air crowds of tens of thousands like John Wesley.
|International House of Prayer in Charisma Magazine|
For the next three and a half years I faithfully read the Bible and various commentaries on it and listened to teachers from IHOP, while also regurgitating that material in prayer meetings and in the youth bible studies I began to lead for younger teens. Through all of this I had unquestioning loyalty and commitment to this cause. I was so committed that I became very upset internally when people, including myself, did fun things like play video games or watch movies because they should have been committing their lives entirely to savings souls from hellfire through intercessory prayer and preaching. It’s inevitably selfish to use your limited lifetime on earth for yourself when you have all eternity to enjoy things when instead you could spend this short life saving people from burning forever. I had to save others from such damnation!
I lectured some of my friends on how they were wasting their life and how souls could have been saved instead. If I was rejected by them, I would feel “persecuted” for telling them that they were so sinful, which would lead to commiserating with other bible college students about how sinful the world was and how lukewarm other Christians were. I was committed to it even when I didn’t want to: for example, when I felt like some recreation and watched a movie or played a game at a friend’s house, I would feel enormously guilty for it. However, this guilt for gaming paled in compare to the amount of sexual guilt and shame I felt whenever I had a sexual thought, masturbated, or looked at a beautiful woman.
Once I began to masturbate around age 16, I tried to stop continually. Every week it would be the same battle: make it for 3 days, 5 days, 8 days, then break down and masturbate as the frequency and intensity of my biological drive intensified. Every time I “fell” I would weep miserably into my pillow and beg for forgiveness from God for being such a sinner. Sometimes I would be depressed for several days at a time, drowning in feelings of self-hatred and filth. I felt like the worst person in the world. My self-esteem plummeted.
To “fix” myself, I tried several different methods of accountability: confessing to my dad, daily confession with my bible college friends in the morning before school, online programs of study and accountability with an email mentor. I also prayed continually for God to grant me strength to overcome temptation. I recited bible verses with clenched teeth when I would feel tempted. None of them helped. Inevitably, my physical compulsion eventually overruled my mental commitment to not doing it. And yet I plodded on year after year.
Despite my struggles with balancing the Lord’s work with recreation and my problem with continual sexual failures, I remained committed to improving myself and becoming more like Jesus. I had no doubt that this was the track I would stay on for the rest of my life. I have always been a realist and I had little luck with fundraising, so I planned to become an electrician after graduation from bible college rather than a full-time minister. Then I planned to donate large amounts of my income to IHOP and to poverty. Then broadband Internet happened.
Sometime in late 2007 we got broadband internet from TimeWarner and replaced our dial-up internet. The superior speed and constant connection gave me access to a wealth of information that before I had no access to. We had no serious books by Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims in my house. Nor did they sell them at the IHOP bookstore. So the internet was my sole connection with the outside world and I began to devour its contents regarding everything from nutrition to history to bible to philosophy.
Over winter break in January of 2008, I stumbled on some quotes by atheist authors such as Mark Twain and found myself curious as to why this popular fiction author that I read as a child was an atheist. I soon discovered that many heroes and intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson had serious reservations about Christianity. I began to think to myself, “what was it that they found so dubious about Christianity?” Through this process I discovered all the major criticisms of Christianity (problem of evil, bible contradictions, age of the earth, evolution, tyranny of hell, inadequacy of faith healing,) and the secular support for a naturalistic worldview. I want to thank Richard Carrier, John Loftus, Dan Barker, Ken Daniels, and countless other secular authors who helped me on my journey.
At this moment I began to doubt my faith. What if I just believed evangelical Christianity because I was born into a Christian family? Wouldn’t I be Muslim or Buddhist if I had been born in a different family? Is there any independent support for my faith as opposed to theirs? So I decided to read Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and C.S. Lewis 50% and continue reading secular authors 50% of the time so that I could attempt to be fair-minded and equal in my attention span to both of them, letting the truth prevail on its own. I wanted to start from as much of a blank slate as I could.
I also prayed fervently that God would give me some amazing supernatural encounter so that I would not doubt, or send some sign that I would just know that he was real. But all I heard was silence and my own thoughts. These thoughts that I had previously identified as being the Holy Spirit talking to me, I now realized were from my own mind.
|Me face-down in intercessory prayer on a long fast|
Other leaders such as Stuart Greaves hammered me with accusations that I was just being arrogant and that I just need to be humble and accept their higher knowledge without proof. These claims from charismatic leaders seemed all too similar to the traveling salesman with the miracle all-purpose snake oil that requires no proof. It made me want to leave Kansas City to avoid the harassment. No one told me that they were happy that I was thinking for myself or reading books outside of Christianity, except for Luke Hendrickson and Sarah Troyer (Thanks guys!)
One of our Bible college teachers, Wes Hall, stated in a class that we should be extremely cautious about reading books on other world religions, because some of his friends had gone astray after doing so. Essentially, let’s just silence other ideas so that our ideas can win! If we just remain mostly ignorant of everything else in the world, then we can accept the truth! What bullshit. Almost no one was excited for me to ask interesting questions. In fairness, I understand that they were concerned for my soul, but their methods were counterproductive, alienating, and cultish.
As I read more about Christian thought, I also began to realize that I had been a part of a quasi-cult of a few thousand people, with influences on tens of thousands worldwide, but still mostly a cult that kept people in its reach full-time as missionaries spreading its viral novel messages. I always thought that this was on the verge of becoming mainstream, and maybe one day it will be more mainstream in evangelicalism, but it’s not yet.
Coming out was hardest with my family. Once I began asking critical questions of my family (i.e did they think hell was fair, the bible flawless etc…) they basically asked if I was an atheist. My mom wept profusely and my dad was angry and shocked that I changed from all the hours of indoctrination I received as a kid. My brother yelled at me that he couldn’t understand how I could be so blind and not believe in God. I wanted to reply that I was not the closed-minded, blind one since I was reading Christian and secular authors equally, while he had read little but the bible his whole life. But I bit my tongue. The idea was incomprehensible to him as it had been to me, so I don’t blame him. I offered to share a few articles or books with him to help understand how I felt, but he was too worried about being deceived that he said he would not read them for fear of falling like me.
The one bright spot was that when I came out to my best friend Sterling, it turned out that he had deconverted from Christianity 9 months prior, but was too frightened of my religious zeal to tell me. We began to have coffee daily at a small indie coffee shop in Grandview called the Hard Bean. There we poured our souls out about the frustration with family who didn’t understand, the humorous things we used to believe, unanswered questions in science and philosophy, details of evolution that we didn’t know as teens, and where we were going to go with our lives now that we seemed to be done with IHOP and Christendom. He gave me strength when no one else would. Later, I also found other intellectual nontheistic friends such as Jesse Meyer, Brittany Hundley, and Chris Calvey. But at that time, almost everyone else in my life caused me constant pain since I no longer believed the same things they did. Rather than understanding me, I was surrounded by constant attempts to reconvert me or accuse me of arrogance or homosexuality or blindness. I am extraordinarily grateful to my friends for their support and I encourage anyone reading this to be supportive and available to those who question their faith. Also, do not count anyone out. Plenty of pastors like Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt have deconverted later in life, so almost no one is too far gone to have an intelligent conversation with.
Epilogue: I moved to Wisconsin to get away from the misplaced religious zeal of my family and church members. I joined the National Guard because I had no idea how I was going to pay for college and then went on to get a Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I still feel guilt and shame sometimes when I’m not being productive, but to a much lesser extent than before. I love playing ultimate frisbee, biking, gaming, reading science & technology news, and having intellectual discussions with my friends. I am now far happier and whole, intellectually and emotionally, than I ever was before, rather than empty as most Christians suppose godless heathens are. We are often told in church that atheists have this huge void in their heart that they can’t fill with anything but God. I am often asked if I am afraid of being wrong and going to hell. I reply that I am not any more afraid of Christian hell than they are of the hells of other religions. While this essay is not a list of my reasons for doubting Christianity, you can email me at brandonfrederick20 AT gmail DOT com if you have any questions for me. Thanks for reading if you made it this far :)
|Sunset view from Austin's Mt. Bonnell|